Crowdsource query

I’m still catching up on the avalanche of Sandy news. As expected, the death tolls are up and the tragic stories are beginning to emerge. Also as expected, most of those deaths occurred in the evacuation zones.

When the horrific Breezy Point fire was burning, this update appeared on The Daily Dish, which had sourced it from the New York Times (now fallen off the live update page, and I can’t find it in the archives):

Officials say the fire was reported at about 11 p.m. Monday and involved about 80 to 100 flooded houses situated in the Zone A area. More than 190 firefighters contained the blaze, but were still putting out some pockets of fire more than nine hours after it erupted.

Firefighters said the water was chest high on the street, and they had to use a boat to make rescues. They said in one apartment home, about 25 people were trapped in an upstairs unit, and the 2-story home next door was ablaze and setting fire to the apartment’s roof. Firefighters climbed an awning to access the trapped people, and took them downstairs to the boat in the street.

That would be 25 people who did not obey a mandatory evacuation order, and who would almost certainly have died had firefighters not risked their own lives to rescue them from an area they were not supposed to be in. In fact there were no fatalities at Breezy Point (that we know of right now), a miracle that can be attributed only to the courage and training of the firefighters.

Which brings me to my questions. If a first responder had died in the act of saving people who refused to obey a mandatory evacuation order, would those people be civilly or criminally liable for that death? If not, should they be?

And if there is no liability or responsibility, then what is the purpose of a “mandatory” evacuation zone as opposed to any other sort of evacuation zone?

Lastly, what about the elderly or physically disabled, who want to evacuate but cannot? Does the government bear responsibility for getting them out, and if so, which government — regional, city, state, federal?

Of course, there must be a terribly slippery slope in the issue of responsibility. A 75-year-old who couldn’t get out would not have the same personal responsibility as a healthy 30-year-old who could get out, but chose not to leave because “this is all overhyped and the last storm wasn’t that bad.” So if liability were to be assigned, then capacity and intent would have to be measured and I’m getting a headache already just thinking about it.

I am asking these questions out of genuine curiosity, and a knowledge that among my readers are members of law enforcement, lawyers and others who know much more about the civil and legal aspects of this than I do. How does this stuff work?

About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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13 Responses to Crowdsource query

  1. xenatuba says:

    I don’t know what legal precedents have been established regarding the willful, intentional act of disregarding evacuation orders. I know that this issue arose in the wake of Katrina, and that some of the same questions were posed: How do you evacuate those who are unable to do so (and who does it?) and what responsibilities exist for those who willfully disregard evacuation orders (and to what extent: criminal, civil…?) I know that there has been some success in billing people for rescue efforts that were the result of negligence (again, there is no legal precedent, but I do know that the Sheriff’s Office has successfully billed idiot boaters who required rescue of persons and recovery of property arising from negligent boating operation) but as far as I know, there has been no legal consequence for said behavior.

    An interesting difference between Sandy and other ferocious storms is that the forecast and projected path to include time frames and influencing circumstances was spot on…there have been any number of other (particularly hurricane) forecasts that weren’t as precise, and general evacuation orders are disregarded with no consequence. As posted previously on this blog, the unsung heroes in this event are the scientists; had we not had that phenomenal analysis, the casualty toll would be unimaginable.

    As someone who goes into harms way on behalf of other people, I know that if I was injured or killed saving someone who “didn’t believe” the warning (and I don’t much care why the “don’t believe” is there, but there are some that are worse than others) and didn’t evacuate, I would hope that my heirs would attempt to hold those persons personally responsible. You may recall the fellow who lived on Mt. St. Helens who refused to move, and was obliterated by the eruption in May 1980. No evacuation, but no loss of first responder life, either.

    You do pose an interesting question, however: How do you help folks evacuate that can’t. I know of several stories from Katrina (from friends who lived through it; check out the “New Orleans Jazz Ramblers” for one) where evacuation was impossible. Who needs to go and get Aunt Sue or Grandpa Bob when they don’t drive, can’t walk without help, and don’t watch much TV to know that there is impending risk? Some secondary questions: why build in hazard zones? Why not bury the power lines?

    I will pose this question to a friend who is on a crew from the mid-west that has gone to New Jersey, along with a friend who is a cop in New Jersey.

  2. M. says:

    I am no lawyer and I don’t know answers to your questions, but in my country in such situations most likely help of army is used. Soldiers help people to evacuate from danger zones, then check if nobody is left behind, then patrol the area, then help people to clean and move back. In this light the one staying behind had to hide to do so, so a country is not responsible for this person’s wellbeing, so this person should be responsible for lives of people who had to come later to rescue them. This is a theory. I’ve never seen it in practice and I hope to never see it.

    • oregon expat says:

      For us, the military equivalent would be the National Guard, which is essentially a state militia. And we do call out the National Guard after natural disasters, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of them being called out proactively.

  3. xenatuba says:

    From my fellow policeman in New Jersey:

    Answer. Mandatory doesn’t actually mean so. We cannot make you. However, in NJ, you are told ahead of time of course. This is when elderly are checked on by friends, neighbors etc to make arrangements to be evacuated first by police, ems etc. After evac finished, 1st responders go door to door. If someone answers, they are encouraged to leave. If they don’t, they are told they will be responsible for their own safety. Some towns have you sign a waiver stating such & a record kept for your recovery, not rescue. Living on an island, during the height of the storm, ALL 1ST Responder apparatus leave the island with all personnel. No police fire or ems. When storm clears, 1st responders return. Is a fire is reported, fire would make an attempt to respond ONLY if safe to do so. And yes, a person may be held liable fir the safety or harm of the 1st responder.

    He added: Also, on the mainland, Ems/ALS/BLS will not respond during a minimally set maintained wind speed. State Police also did same with their road troopers.

    My EMS coordinator friend is still active in NYC area.

  4. Joan Arling says:

    The problem is twofold (as you say yourself). Those who cannot leave — well, from my understanding of American culture — ought to be taken care of by their neighbours. It’s not a system that would work where I live (Germany), but it’s what seems to work in the US (reference: R. A. Heinlein, ‘Rumblings from the Grave’).

    The ‘diehards’ might as well die hard — no fireman should be requested to risk his/her life, and by consequence that of his/her family; it will, of course, never be easy to discern just who sends a distress-call. However, while in the case of ‘Sandy’ scientists’ predictions were marvously spot-on, said scientists have rarely been able to be that precise. I guess once their warnings gather more reputation, people will be more willing to heed them.

    I don’t think there’s a legal or political answer to your question.

    • Brigitte says:

      I think this isn’t entirely accurate. In Germany we have an element of offence called „unterlassene Hilfeleistung“ (failing to render assistance) – so you have to help your neighbors – only a danger to the life and physical safety for yourself or other release you of this duties.

  5. Inge says:

    It’s a slippery road isn’t it? We are obliged to help people in need.. or so many laws and customs tell us. When do we stop helping or better when do we have the right not to bother? When people don’t do as they are asked to do? Not listening to an evac-order? Not stopping for a red light while driving? In either case when the worst happen, people need others. Should we not help? When you decide not to in some cases, what about all the other similar cases.. Why help at all?

    But what about if the rescuers could be in mortal danger… aren’t they when they have to combat fire anyway? Aren’t they when they have to make rescues out at sea when a storm blows in? They all signed up for the job in good days and bad days. What difference does it make if it’s because a stupid person made a bad decision (didn’t leave or drive through a red light or going fishing out at sea during a storm) or just was somewhere at a bad time, bad place? If they can help, they really should. If not, who gets to decide who gets rescued and who doesn’t?

    The only way i can see to not do a rescue is when performing a rescue would be useless, meaning it’s truly impossible at that time. If you will die before you get there… impossible. If conditions are such that if you got there, you couldn’t do a rescue anyway.. impossible. In all other cases, when the risk can be foreseen and acted against, they should, even if it is to help stupid people. Otherwise you’re getting on a slippery road, which i, for one, don’t want to walk on.

    Having said all that.. when massive evacuation-order is given in Belgium, usually the public transport company is called upon to aid for those who don’t have a car, don’t know how to drive,.. Police are going from house to house to evacuate people. I have to say, here, the people usually listen, so i don’t know what they do if someone refuses. (i have never heard of such a case really) So i searched a bit on the net, apparently some did once, they got fined and a prison sentence afterwards.

    • xenatuba says:

      Inge, you have a couple of good points: Sea rescue is exactly what folks (like our Coast Guard) signed up for, and there is a great deal of predictable in those rescues; same with firefighters: fires are, in and of themselves, predictable and in both of these chosen fields, there is a great deal of training that goes into dealing with these predictably unpredictable situations so that they are more easily managed. Saving people from their own (editorial bias here) stupidity begins to cross a line of responsibility. I know, every day that I go to work, there is a chance that I will not come home due to the criminal or stupid actions of another person. I train so that I can best address that circumstance should it arise, and the fact remains that I have that risk as part of my job.

      No one “signs up” for the job to get killed, and every one of us in these professions recognizes it as a potential outcome. If I have to give my life for someone else, I don’t want it to be for some idiot who had every opportunity to make different decisions and did not; I want it to be for a greater good.

      • Inge says:

        I understand your feeling, but i can not fully agree. Takes this for example: They were utterly stupid to cross the highway (several times) and had the police not intervened they would have died. And they ran a risk going out there to restrain the second twin. I know most accidents happen because of a stupidity. Running a red light to crossing highways to drink-driving to… So why do we all agree we still rescue them? And why not the ones that made a bad decision to stay home when a hurricane blows in? Is it too big a stupidity?

        That is what i don’t fully get about your point of view. Why would you help out in one case of stupidity but not in the other? I agree when it is absolutely impossible to help, stay away. But afterwards i do expect police, firemen,.. to step up even when there might be some danger.. (Normally all of them have had disaster-training, i know i as a red cross administrative volunteer for disasters, gets it). And yes i find it strange people will not evacuate (as i said i don’t see that happen a lot in our country) but afterwards te stupids should be helped as well. Stupidity doesn’t make them less of a human and everyone, by law, has to aid the one in need… and to me, that law counts even more for our firemen, policemen,…

        • xenatuba says:

          You misunderstand…we still go, it is just that I want that risk to mean something. We all still go, and we step up ESPECIALLY when there is danger, and more so because we have the training and experience (and dare I say calling) to respond. I don’t have the luxury of choosing what to respond to and what not to respond to, I would just hope that if someone pays the ultimate price of their life that there is some good that comes of it.

          • Inge says:

            Aaah… thank you for clarifying. 🙂 I don’t know really, but saving a life has to mean something. If you have done that, you changed a life. It doesn’t get bigger than that..

            I know you guys take all the risks. I’m glad you want to do that (and get trained to do so safely, mostly). Where i’m standing it means a lot, you know. How many lives have been saved because of the actions of everyone out there? .. it sure as hell meant something. I firmly believe that.

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